News & Events

Patrick gets unions huffing and puffing

By Scot Lehigh, Globe Columnist  |  March 10, 2010

LABOR LEADERS are in a lather. So deep runs their indignation that Governor Patrick canceled an appearance at a recent AFL-CIO conference because attendees were ready to snub their invited guest and join police officers protesting outside while he spoke.

Patrick should be “one and done,’’ Thomas Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, thundered at that protest, urging union members to render the Democratic incumbent a single-term governor.

“I understand all the things that are going on in the world of economics, but you can’t go rewriting collective bargaining agreements and history,’’ Nee told me.

State AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes, another labor blunderbuss, recently blasted Patrick and the Legislature for their treatment of public employees. “This current economic crisis has been taken out on the back of public-sector workers here in the Commonwealth,’’ Big Bad Bob declared to WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller.

Why, even the usually lower key David Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, has chimed in, telling the Globe that his police members “feel like they’re whipping boys and girls.’’

Now, as we saw when Nee threatened to disrupt the 2004 Democratic National Convention being held in the city he serves because of minor contract differences with City Hall, Tom sometimes suffers from a certain lack of perspective.

With Big Bad Bob, you always have to figure in the bluster factor. Entertainingly silly goose though he has long been, it’s still hard to think he really believes his own spiel here. Unless, that is, he’s missed the many difficult cuts state programs have suffered in this recession. Or the $26 million in discretionary stimulus funds the Patrick administration has devoted to saving local public safety jobs.

Holway, I suspect, is mostly striking a sympathetic chord with his aggrieved members.

Still, for private-sector workers, the real message from this winter of labor discontent should be clear: On a number of difficult union issues – issues so thorny and thankless they had long gone unaddressed – Patrick has his priorities straight. Although private-sector unions are an important counterweight to corporate power, the dynamic is different, and sometimes dysfunctional, in the public sector. There, unions often help elect the very people who are their ostensible managers.

Thus it’s easy for an expedient officeholder to favor public employee unions over taxpayers, who too often get left funding arrangements or benefits that you don’t see in the private sector. That’s particularly true when the issues are murky enough to escape public attention or press scrutiny.

In 2006, one of my criticisms of candidate Patrick was that he had embraced too many self-serving union priorities. And on matters like the Pacheco anti-privatization law or municipal health care costs, I still think the governor should do more.

But let’s give credit where it’s clearly due. On the recent issues that have left labor leaders huffing and puffing, Patrick has done the right thing. Since it’s hard to defend the individual arrangements themselves – be they wasteful police details or big Quinn Bill police salary hikes for college degrees or gold-plated public health care plans – unions are trying to reframe the reforms as an unconscionable assault on collective bargaining. Actually, it’s the perks themselves that were the objectionable assault, and on the average citizen’s wallet.

Meanwhile, the teachers unions are angry that Patrick pushed legislation letting education authorities dismiss faculty at failing schools. But if a school isn’t serving its students, what should matter most to policymakers: the job-security rights of teachers or the educational needs of the kids?

Similarly, if you had planned to retire after 23 years at the MBTA with a nice pension and you can’t any longer, you may well be peeved. And if you enjoyed that agency’s lavish health-care benefits, you may be miffed that you’ll now get your coverage through the Group Insurance Commission, which will mean some higher out-of-pocket expenses.

But if you’re a taxpayer or T rider who bristled at having to fund costly deals that you yourself didn’t get, you should see union pique for what it is: an indication that, in confronting tough issues in difficult times, Patrick has put the public interest first.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at